Help For Harping Hands

When hands and fingers were given out, I did not end up in the line for people who want to play the harp, the line where you were given long fingers and strong joints. My finger and thumb joints hyperextend and collapse. My fingers bend nearly backwards when I put pressure on something, like harp strings, with my fingertips. The year I started harp lessons I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the base of the thumb. Thumb joint pain is mostly held at bay with daily doses of glucosamine and MSM, but what minimal thumb strength I started with is mostly gone. And a car wreck some 30 years ago left me with nerve damage in my left arm. If I want my hands to sound their notes at the same time, I must start plucking my left fingers at least half a second before I move my right fingers.

My harp teacher, bless her, took all my finger foibles in stride. She devised multiple ways to help me develop finger strength and stability. I diligently drilled all the finger strengthening exercises in On Playing the Harp by Yolanda Kondonassis. I used the eraser end of a pencil to keep the joints on each finger from collapsing while I plucked. I drilled endless four finger chords, first with only finger four playing, then only finger four and three, then four, three and two . . . well, you get the picture.

The years of these finger exercises succeeded in developing joint strength and stability in my index and middle fingers. But after seven years of lessons and strengthening work, I still could not reliably play a four-finger chord and have all the notes sound even or be heard. Finger four would either twang its string as the finger collapsed, or make no sound at all, and thumb sounds were faint at best, and usually non-existent.

My teacher and I discussed my need for finger and thumb stability, as well as the availability of splints, many times. Every year we agreed that I would keep plugging away with the exercises – they’d worked for two of my four fingers, so maybe this would be the year the exercises would finally strengthen my ring fingers and thumbs. But when I started my lessons last spring with two pieces that required thumb slides and four-finger chords, she told me that I really was at the limit of my technique until I got my thumbs and ring fingers stabilized.

Telling me that I wasn’t going to get any better on the harp was the motivation I needed to embark on what proved to be a long and time-consuming process to get finger and thumb splints. I first had to see my primary MD to request an order for an evaluation with a hand therapist. I then saw an Occupational Therapist for the hand evaluation and for the first of many appointments to measure me for the splints.

The first finger splint I received was too big for my left ring finger but fit my right ring finger perfectly, so I only had one additional visit to be re-measured for the left finger splint. Getting a splint that worked for the thumb ended up being quite the challenge. I couldn’t get my thumb into the first splint, despite the measuring prototype fitting well. The second splint stopped hyperextension by preventing me from raising my thumb beyond a 45 degree angle. That wasn’t going to fly with my harp teacher!

At this point the OT took on getting me a thumb splint that worked on the harp as a personal challenge. She took multiple photos of my thumb and of my hands on my harp, e-mailed them to the Silver Ring Splint Company and discussed what I needed to play the harp with one of the splint fabricators. He suggested a modification to the original splint that would allow the necessary “thumbs up” hand position without allowing any hyperextension. The third splint fit my thumb perfectly and worked with the harp.  After all the trial-and-error on the splint for the left thumb, the right thumb splint fit with only one appointment to do the measurements.

Nine months after my initial appointment with my primary MD, both ring fingers and thumbs were finally decked out in their new splints.  Was it worth the copays for the doctor appointment and the hand evaluation, the multiple trips across town to the OT’s office, the out-of-pocket expense for the splints?

I wore all four splints for the very first time at this semester’s first harp lesson. Warming up, I played a rolled, four-finger, two-handed C-major chord. “That was a wonderful chord. Every note was even, and I can hear your thumb!” my teacher exclaimed. Yes, it was all definitely worth it!

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15 thoughts on “Help For Harping Hands

  1. I am very interested in such splints, as I think I have several joint instabilities that are affecting my ability to play (learning for a couple of years now).
    However I wonder how much noise they make on the lower/wire strings, especially when doing things like muffling, flat octaves, etc? Or do the cause buzzing, if you happen to touch the adjacent strings when placing?

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    1. The only problem I’ve had is the bracelet on the left hand thumb splint interfering with left hand harmonics. I now tape the bracelet to my wrist with self adhesive athletic tape so it does not slide onto the base of my thumb and prevent the harmonic. I muffle more with the heel of my hands so that’s not a problem. They have not interfered with flat octaves. And touching adjacent strings doesn’t seem to be a problem – all my buzzes are still caused by my clumsy finger /skin touches, not the metal of the splints. The splints make it possible for me to do four-finger chords and also 1-5-8 and 1-5-10 stretches that I could never do because of my wobbly and weak thumbs.

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  2. I can see your thumb is still hyperextending in the pictures!

    You might want to think about adding the proximal volar extension to the thumb splints. That will keep them from hyperextending. (I’m an OT with EDS, so I both measure people for these splints and understand hyperextension on a personal level)

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    1. Hi Christina- Thanks for your input on my splints. If the PVE is the horseshoe shaped extension on the palm side of the thumb splints, I have them. Perhaps I need to return to see the OT who fitted me? When I get back from the harp conference, I’ll post a photo of the palm side of the thumb splints. I would greatly appreciate your input, as the OT I saw had little experience with the silver ring spints for thumbs. Thanks! Janet

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  3. Fabulous tale of determination and resilience not only on your part, but your instructor, the OT and splint specialist! The result is so worth it, and it has all the appearances of ‘hand jewellery’!

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  4. Wow – that’s quite a journey. I admire your fortitude and patience for each step of the way. 🙂 It really shows how deep your passion runs, when you’re willing to go through all of that just to be able to play. That’s beauty at its finest. 🙂

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  5. I’ve never heard of ring splints before! They look fascinating. I am incredibly impressed with your tenacity to continue, especially with the nerve damage. I am glad you have a teacher and a doctor that will work with you.

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  6. Yes one of the hardest things to learn – and to teach another person – is how to stay relaxed while maintaining the hand position and making a good sound. Sure it feels relaxed now that I’ve been playing the harp for 15 years and now play professionally, but it takes a long time for it to feel natural.

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    1. And all this time, I really thought my hands WERE relaxed! Now that I’m not substituting hand tension for functional thumb joints, I can find out what relaxed hands really feel like!

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  7. Wow…that’s quite a contraption. Do you wear it when you play now all the time? My fingers and thumbs hyperextend in my right hand all the time from the 30 years of using dental instruments. Plus I’m a hyper flexible person anyway. Wonder if I will need one of these. Congrats on feeling success with your 4 finger chords now!

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    1. I now wear the splints every time I play. They are like putting double rings on fingers and thumbs. The chain you see around my wrist is just to help the thumb splint stay in place – it doesn’t assist the thumb. I had no idea how much tension I had in my hands from trying to stiffen up my thumbs and ring fingers so I could play. My hands are learning to relax as I play, and the music sounds SO much better as a result. Being able to do four-finger chords is wonderful!

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      1. That is just fascinating that you can feel so much less tension. Makes sense that the music would sound better. Would love to know if it would help me.

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      2. I was amazed that my hands could feel so much more relaxed, especially since they didn’t feel particularly tense to me. I guess that tension is what I was used to and I didn’t know there was even a possibility of relaxation.

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